League of Dragons by Naomi Novik

  “Yes, I understand,” he said, when Grig trailed off at last. “I understand very well.”

  “Then you see why I would like to know—” Grig began, but Temeraire rumbled a warning, and silenced him.

  “I would certainly give you no private hints, if I had them,” Temeraire said, speaking clearly, to be heard and understood by all the other dragons, who had been already listening in with interest, stretching to overhear. “I will not be satisfied, nor should any right-thinking dragon, to escape destruction only for myself and my personal friends—I will not stand by, and see such a project carried out. And neither will Laurence, you may depend upon it.”

  He was angry, and his voice betrayed it—Grig cowered away from him and the rising thrum. Temeraire closed his jaws until the urge to roar had subsided. He would not blame Grig, who had been raised so badly, and had never learned to trust any other dragon, or had any person worthy of trust, either.

  “We will certainly put a stop to the entire business,” Temeraire continued, when he trusted himself to speak again. “And any dragon, who does not care to be poisoned or shot for the convenience of men, may help us, if they choose—that is all I have to say on the subject, and when Laurence comes back, he will certainly agree; he will never obey such a command.”

  “Oh,” Grig said, a little doubtfully. “But did you not say that you lost ten thousand pounds by it, the last time?”

  This gave Temeraire a sharp moment, a painful start—and after he had only just restored Laurence’s fortunes!—“I will lose as much again,” he said, with an effort, and immense resolution. “I will do it again, if need be; if I really must. Even that consideration will not stop me.”

  Having made this painful declaration, Temeraire went aloft and returned to his own clearing, to pace its confining limits round and round and making distracted apologies if he should knock over a tree, to the inconvenience of his crew. Laurence had certainly gone to stop the whole business—Temeraire saw it now. Laurence meant to stop it, and to tell Temeraire after the whole monstrous plan had already been averted, exactly to spare him the distress of the prospect which now lay so horribly close before them. If Laurence did not succeed—Temeraire shied away from too much contemplation of the consequences.

  He turned his attention, rather, to the nearly as daunting consideration of how they should proceed, if the worst were to come to pass. They could not chase all over the Continent, themselves, to warn everyone. “We shall have to pass the word through the ferals,” Temeraire said aloud, but what if not everyone should believe them? He turned around again, sweeping over two tents without really noticing. “I had better speak to Ricarlee—and I must try and get word to Bistorta, and to the ferals of Lithuania.”

  He was so engaged in planning out this network of communication that he did not pay any attention to movements outside his own clearing, until with a start he raised his head at several shadows moving in perpetual circles over his clearing, rudely, and looking around found Obituria and Fidelitas and their formations gathered closely around him, with their wing dragons circling overhead.

  “What is it?” Temeraire said to Fidelitas, who ducked his head away with a queer, jerking unhappy movement, but said nothing.

  “Why, I don’t know,” Obituria said maddeningly. “I have only come along on orders: we are to take up stations around your clearing. Is there going to be a battle? I did not get to fight, last time,” she said glumly.

  “I should not think so, for Napoleon was three days off, yesterday,” Temeraire said, puzzled, but Granby was coming down the path—Granby, in a rage, halting where Captain Poole and Captain Windle had gathered with their officers, across the entrance to Temeraire’s clearing.

  “What the devil do you mean by this?” he snapped. “You will explain yourselves, gentlemen; you will dismiss your dragons, and explain yourselves, at once.”

  “We will do no such thing,” Poole answered, very coldly—he looked very pale, with red splotches come out upon his forehead, “and I hardly would have supposed that explanation would be required by an officer of His Majesty’s Corps—a loyal officer; I do not think any such man could entertain the least confusion, after the performance to which so many of us were witness not an hour since, about our actions, or indeed their necessity.”

  “By God, I will see you broken the service for this,” Granby said. “You have deserved it twice over before this, in one campaign, and this crowns all—”

  “That you should dare to speak of the service, in these circumstances, beggars all belief,” Poole spat back. “When we consider what your own behavior ought to have been even before now, and when you have heard an outright avowal of the intention to commit treason, by those whose willingness to do it can hardly be denied—by those who ought long since have been put past the power of repeating their crime—”

  “What?” Temeraire said, in rousing wrath. “Am I to understand that you—that all of you—” he turned to Obituria and Fidelitas, “have come here, have taken up positions against me—in defense of this poisoning scheme? That you are here to help poison other dragons, and not even enemy dragons; to poison and murder the smallest, starving ferals, who have not a bowl of porridge to be sure of, who have no coverts, nor crew, nor any sort of treasure at all, who are not a quarter of your size—”

  The dragons were all drawing back from him uneasily—the divine wind was a growing echo in his throat, and he felt not the least inclination to rein it back. “And you would let them all be made sick, and left to die—I suppose you think,” he stormed at Gaudenius, Obituria’s wing dragon and a Yellow Reaper, even as that beast shrank ashamedly back, “that they would not think of poisoning the Reapers in Yorkshire, the ones who do not care to be harnessed? And none of you should mind it if dragons like Ricarlee and his fellows, who after all have been good wing-mates all this while, should be tricked into eating poisoned sheep, and pushed into pens to be burnt up? To this, you mean to lend your assistance—”

  “Oh! I don’t, at all!” Obituria burst out, aghast. “I don’t! How can you say such dreadful things? We are only here because our captains have asked us.”

  “That is as much to say, that you have not troubled to find out what they are about,” Temeraire said. “I do not suppose any of you wondered, when they told you to take up a fighting-post over my clearing, what they meant by it?” He looked at Fidelitas, who could not meet his eyes, but dropped his head miserably.

  “Do not listen to that treasonous, seditious beast another moment,” Poole called angrily. “Fidelitas, you know you have never been disobedient a moment before you met him—you must see how he is bent on leading all of you astray.”

  “Astray, I suppose, from your wishes,” Temeraire said, swiveling his head down to Poole, “which have never consulted his, or those of dragons, at all.”

  “And this is what your marvelous actions are to get us,” Granby snapped to Poole. “—a pitched fight, between our own dragons, in our own camp.”

  “Better that, than seeing treason go by, unopposed!” Poole said. He stepped back from Granby and drew his sword. “I will gladly die—I will die by my own dragon’s teeth—” Fidelitas cried out in horror at this dreadful suggestion, but Poole only flung onwards, “before I will turn a blind unseeing eye to treason, before my face. When I am called to give testimony, I will not say, I knew nothing, bleating.”

  “Why, damn you,” Granby said, reaching for his own sword, and all the officers were suddenly shouting at one another, and Challoner and the crew, staring, were running to Granby’s side, and they were all so closely packed in that Temeraire could not see a way to get a claw in among them, if needed—

  “What is the meaning of this display?”

  Laurence’s bellow had rarely been so welcome. Temeraire gasped in relief; Laurence was there, on the path—and then his gasp became horror, for with a swift springing turn, Poole was by Laurence’s side, and he had laid the edge of his sword at Laurence’s throat.

bsp; Temeraire froze, halted completely. One push of the blade, and Laurence—Laurence might die, might be killed, right before his eyes. Fidelitas made a low terrible noise, crouching—of course he knew that Poole would die, too, immediately afterwards. But that could count for nothing with Temeraire; what would anything matter, when Laurence was dead?

  Laurence stood very calmly, and looked Poole in the face—Poole panting heavily, his jaw clenched. Temeraire felt he saw and tracked every droplet of sweat that trickled down into Poole’s collar, every slight—too slight—tremor of his arm. “Put up that sword, Captain,” Laurence said. “You are overset.” He looked at the other officers, paying not the least attention to the blade still at his neck. “Captain Granby, I am obliged to appoint you acting-admiral, of our forces—”

  “Laurence!” Granby cried, taking a step.

  “I have been required to assume the united command of the allied aerial forces,” Laurence continued, as though he had not been interrupted. “We have only a few days before Bonaparte will be on our heels, gentlemen. We are to use them to recruit or sway every feral we can find to our cause, and make whatever defense of them we can. I do not despair of our success. Winters,” he called—and after a moment, Winters timidly ran out to him, through the crowd of uncertain, stilled men.

  Laurence reaching up pushed the blade by the flat away from his neck, easily. Poole watched his arm move as though he had no power to halt it, and then let it fall to his side. Laurence did not look at him, but took out an envelope from his coat and handed it to Winters. “Take that to Mr. Challoner, and have her set every man with a clear hand to copying it,” he said. “Gentlemen, if any of you have any man in your crew who has any Durzagh, from serving with Arkady and his Pamir ferals at the Channel, you will oblige me by sending them to me at once.”

  He came down the path, through the men who cleared a way for him, and to Temeraire’s side. He put a hand on Temeraire’s foreleg. With a shudder of relief, as though he had seen a slow-match put out before it reached the cannon, Temeraire put his head down and nosed Laurence over carefully. Fidelitas was snatching Poole up, and flying away, but for the moment Temeraire gave that no attention; he only made certain Laurence was well, and after he had assured himself that there was no scratch, no drawn blood, he gave a great sigh and then asked, “Laurence, what is that?” meaning the mysterious document which Laurence had brought, which seemed so important.

  “It is your bill,” Laurence said. “Yours and Perscitia’s. The Tsar and King Frederick have agreed to its terms.”

  “YOU MUST ALSO CONSIDER,” Temeraire said earnestly, “the Frenchbreeding program, and what it should mean for all of you, on the Continent. You must recall they mean to hatch no less than four thousand eggs.”

  “It does give one pause,” Bistorta acknowledged, while a murmur traveled the gathered ferals—a great many Alpine ferals had come in answer to his urgent messages, and others from Saxony had come along out of curiosity. Naturally none of them could fail to be concerned with so many dragons hatching in a territory neighboring their own. “It does, but it does not therefore mean we can rely on your friends. I don’t think there are any of us who have not heard of this very terrible business in Russia, now.”

  “I have seen one of those beasts who was hobbled up myself,” one feral piped up, “going around with the French. His scars! I did not like to believe it, before then, not truly. But nothing else could account for scars like that.”

  Bistorta nodded firm agreement. She wore the largest, most magnificent of the platters from the golden dinner service around her neck, upon a chain—it gave Temeraire a faint pang still, every time a flash of the firelight gleamed off the lovely engraving—and the others were all very respectful of her. “I do not know I would not rather see this Napoleon win, when by all accounts he has behaved handsomely by dragons.”

  “I am the last to say anything in defense of the Russians’ behavior,” Temeraire said, “except that they have learnt better, and are showing they mean to do better, for the very same reason that Napoleon has been behaving so nicely to dragons lately: because they want our help. Napoleon’s concern, like theirs, is first for himself and his own empire. I do not believe he is to be relied on, further than any other government. It is only that they can all see the importance of having us on their side, now, which makes them eager to be our friends. Of course, Napoleon has been quicker to see his advantage—I believe no-one has ever denied he is very clever. But that is not as much as to say he is the keeper of our interest.”

  “Well, no,” Bistorta said, “but it does not make him less so, than this come-lately Tsar, who did not think anything of hobbles.”

  “And if the outcomes of their respective victories were equal, I should agree with you,” Temeraire said judiciously. “But you must see that they are not. Napoleon only need hold his enemies off until all his new dragons have hatched and grown, and then he will have his own way, all across the Continent. There will be no-one to match him for ten years, no matter what the rest of us should choose to do in future.

  “But if the allies should win, there will be many powers in Europe—Russia, and Prussia, and Austria, and England, and France, besides Spain, and any number of smaller nations and principalities. If any one of them should fail to keep faith with us, or should begin to treat dragons poorly, we shall have the power to threaten them by alliance with one or more of the others. So you see, it is very much to our advantage to have a balance of power upon the Continent—however thoughtful Napoleon may have been of dragons, personally.”

  “I do not know I would call it thoughtful, myself, to hatch out four thousand dragons without so much as a word to assure us he has enough food for them all,” muttered one rather lean-looking Alpine beast, with narrowed eyes.

  They all went away murmuring among themselves, and Temeraire congratulated himself that even if they had not been swept away entirely by the force of his arguments, some at least had been persuaded—there had been several inquiries about the rules of prize-money, and ordinary pay, which would hardly have been made if no-one thought them worth joining. He stretched his wings, and went to have a long drink of tea to wet down his dry throat: there were another forty dragons due to arrive in—only an hour, he realized in dismay, as four bells was rung. It seemed he had done nothing but talk, and talk, and talk, for two days.

  “I do not suppose Napoleon will attack to-day?” he asked Challoner wistfully.

  “No, I shouldn’t think there is any likelihood of it,” she said. Temeraire sighed.

  But his labors were bearing some fruit: Bistorta came back the next morning for more conversation, along with many of the other dragons, and a little later Molic arrived also with some two dozen Lithuanian and Prussian ferals in tow. Temeraire spoke with all of them again, and also with a handful of Persian ferals, who had flown all the way from the east; Yu Li had promised to leave word with them, if she could, on her way back to the legions.

  The Persians expressed a loud and very useful sense of injury. “For we were told we might have our territory back, and eat all the cattle that grazes upon it, if only we pushed to keep others out of it,” their chief Tushnamatay said, complaining, “but instead we have been having one fight after another with these red fellows from China, who are extremely nasty if there are any number of them—all sorts of tricks.”

  “When you engage to fight the Imperial Legions of China,” Temeraire said, not a little loftily, “you must expect to run into difficulties. I am not surprised that Napoleon should have misrepresented the situation to you, but I do not see why you should feel obliged to him for putting you in so awkward a position, and why you should keep on fighting us instead of accepting the respectable gifts the legions would be happy to make you.”

  “Gifts are all well enough,” Tushna said, “but they do not make up for men rousting us out everywhere.”

  “I do see that,” Temeraire said, “and I am willing, if you choose, to add you to our own separate
concord, and to make every effort to persuade the men in your territory to agree to join it and give you your rights. I will not make extravagant promises I cannot be sure to keep—unlike some,” he added significantly, “but I can say, we will take your part, if you take ours; and besides that, if any of you should choose to provide us with active assistance, you shall be entitled to prize-money, in a fair share—and you may ask any dragon of my company, that it is fair.”

  He was interrupted here by a clanging alarum, and Moncey dropping into the large clearing. “Well, we are in for it,” he said cheerfully. “He has dropped ten thousand men on the road ahead of us at Bautzen, with sixty guns.”

  “I am very sorry to interrupt our conference,” Temeraire lied to the listening dragons, “but naturally I must go at once. We should be very glad to have any of you, who would like to help—you need only follow along with Ricarlee, that grey dragon there with the blue markings, and he will show you where to go to have a share of the fighting.”

  He returned to his own clearing, Laurence already coming down the path himself shrugging into his flying-coat. “The army will fall back on Reichenbach,” he said. “We must open the road, and then hold them for five hours.”

  “I am sure we can do it, Laurence,” Temeraire said.

  “Best not to take it on credit, my dear,” Laurence said.


  But Temeraire’s confidence was answered, in this instance; when they landed late that evening at the new field-covert established outside the small village of Reichenbach, Laurence might dismount with a sense of weary satisfaction, and know they had balked Napoleon of his prey one more time. And Minnow was waiting for them as they came down, a little stained with travel but bright-eyed and with a letter from Jane; and before Laurence’s boots had touched the ground she announced without preamble, “We have rolled Marshal Jourdan up at Vitoria—Joseph Bonaparte has fled over the Pyrenees, to France.”

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